Hillenmeyer: Something wrong with the way we teach, practice and play this game

Submitted by StephenRKass on May 2nd, 2012 at 6:30 PM

In the current internet Chicago Tribune, there is a brief article quoting former Bear's lineback Hunter Hillenmeyer.

Link: http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/football/bears/chi-hillenmeyer-rash-of-suicides-an-indictment-of-nfl-20120502,0,7928806.story

This is in response to the tragic news of Junior Seau's suicide this afternoon.

Obviously, this is all over the internet, and there is another post regarding Seau a scant six below this. However, in light of the debate over the future of college football, and the increasingly alarming news about concussions, I thought this link was worth posting this for the money quote:

At what point do enough tragic isolated outcomes show there is something systematically wrong with the way we teach, practice and play this game.

None of us know what the future holds, but change is coming. Hillenmeyer himself was cut by the Bears a year ago after his career was ended by concussions. The suicides, the cumulative head trauma, the violence, the Saints take out pay outs, the lack of compensation (beyond scholarships) for high BCS teams, are all swirling together, and the critical mass for radical change appears to be on the horizon.

I watch this closely, because my son is still playing ball, and I don't want to see him hurt in a way that permanently incapacitates him. Do I want anyone permanently injured as a side affect of my own viewing enjoyment?



May 2nd, 2012 at 6:38 PM ^

I wish more of the Saints players would have been punished. What a disgrace to the game that is. I have no tolerance for trying to injure someone on the field.


May 2nd, 2012 at 6:47 PM ^

The thing is everybody does it though. Not necessarily with an intent to injure, but with an intent to break the will of the opponent. Everyone who has ever played the game, from junior high on up, celebrates big hits. And research is showing, with inreasing clarity, that those hits injure both the "hitters" and the "hittees". You try to hit people hard as an intimidation thing, and it results in injuries. I'm not sure punishing only "intent to injure" cases cuts it anymore.


May 2nd, 2012 at 6:52 PM ^

between hurt and injury, between a hard bruising tackle and a deliberate attempt to go at the head or knee.

But I agree that intent shouldn't be the only criterion. Punish every blow to the head, whether deliberate or not. We don't worry about whether clipping is deliberate--it's dangerous so it's illegal, regardless of intent.


May 2nd, 2012 at 6:40 PM ^

I tell myself that that's okay b/c almost no one would have severe brain trauma if they just stopped at the end of college.  I don't know how valid that is, though...The NFL is certainly a compromised sport from a moral perspective at this point. 

david from wyoming

May 2nd, 2012 at 6:42 PM ^

Why do running backs tend to leave collage early? Because of the commonly held belief that you only have a certain number of carries in your life and you better cash in before you run out of them.


Brain injury is not something that is binary, in the sense that you don't have any injuries up until the moment you have a career (or life) ending event. They build slowly over time and all the hits that a running back, or any player, takes from the start of tackle football on count.

His Dudeness

May 2nd, 2012 at 7:26 PM ^

I went to high school with a kid who was a very good RB and would have gone to college, but he had so many concussions in high school that he could barely keep up a conversation by his senior year. He would just laugh and look distant. I knew him since sixth grade. He had a high running style (like McGuffie) and was fast as hell. He wasn't a D1 prospect, but he could have gotten a free education at GVSU or something easily. He hung them up due to concussions out of high school and thank goodness for that.


May 2nd, 2012 at 10:01 PM ^

Remember Mike Williams? The guy this blog called the worst scholarship player ever at Michigan?

He went on medical scholarship I believe because of concussions. I think if we dug a little deeper, we'd be able to find hundreds of examples of similar instances.


May 2nd, 2012 at 10:40 PM ^

That could very well be because you don't hear much about guys whose careers stopped after college, period.

But to your point, Owen Thomas was a player at UPenn who killed himself and was found to have the same neurological syndrome (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE) at age 21 that has been found in NFL vetereans. So it can definitely happen at the college level.


May 3rd, 2012 at 9:42 AM ^

a back up center from Bo's '69 and '70 team. He was not in good shape mentally. His wife explained he couldn't remember people or names very well, which he could not in coversation (except Bo). He told me he believed his condition (Parkinson's) was from playing football at Michigan.

At the time I was hoping we had evolved since then, and I think the Virginia Tech study, and concussion awareness at all levels, etc. are making a difference. (Both my sons Pop Warner teams and his middle school team shifted to the "good" helmets, and coach, student and parent had to sign a concussion agreements.)

However, there is that old school mentality out there in a lot of pockets though. And we certainly have seen players go back into games when they clearly should not have (we're looking at you Brian Kelly).

As for player compensation: my point of view will always be, if these players had a minor league option like baseball players and hockey players do, they would make far less in compensation than a scholarship is worth, much less the training, phsyical therapy, training table, medical care, etc. I believe the cost of living allowances should be offered, and I also think the University should offer a post-career continuing education benefit, and healthy living / training assistance for the players who don't continue in an NFL career. (That last bit is "how to stay healthy while you are loosing all that weight and muscle you packed on for the betterment of our football program".)





May 2nd, 2012 at 6:50 PM ^

Unfortunately not true.


Here are brain scans from the earliest subject in whom CTE has been found. He was a multi sport athlete who suffered multiple concussions playing high school football and died at 18 (to be clear, the page says nothing about him dying because of brain trauma, just that it was found post-mortum.)


May 2nd, 2012 at 6:57 PM ^

I played 4 years of varisty in high school and 2 years in Division 3. I have been diagnosed with a migraine disorder, have memory problems, and suffer from depression. Are they related? I do not know. I do know that my constant pain in my ankles, knees, and shoulders are the result of playing football. All this to say that I will do my best to steer my son away from the sport of football in favor of other sports such as baseball, soccer, basketball, etc. unless there are real changes to the way the game is played. There is way too much risk at this point for anyone to be ok with their child playing this sport as it is. 


May 2nd, 2012 at 7:15 PM ^

My son started playing flag when he was 5 and stopped when it turned into tackle in 6th grade. He was a pretty good quarterback, and had the build for it, but even if he was the next coming of Tom Brady, there's no way I'd let him play tackle football. It's just not worth it. He'll likewise play hockey until they allow hits, and then he'll be done (both from my side and from his. He doesn't like getting hit). I think there are guys who are just physically tough and relish the hitting, and don't worry about the consequences. Those are they guys that need to be protected. 


May 2nd, 2012 at 9:42 PM ^

I was one of the guys who were physically tough and relished the contact. I played offensive tackle in HS and college and there was nothing better than completely dominating a defensive lineman or linebacker. My head got hit on every play of every practice and game, that is a lot of repeated blows. It adds up. I love the game and hope that by the time my son (who is 1) is old enough to play, the rules are different and CTE/head trauma is understood better. 

James Burrill Angell

May 2nd, 2012 at 9:24 PM ^

I have a kid who just started school and flag. I played tackle from fifth grade through high school and would have played Ivy/Div 3 had the schools that wanted me not required knee surgery before they would clear me to play. I love the game so much and want my son to go through the highs, lows and character building the game brought me. That said, my fucking knees hurt SO MUCH every damn day and one of them just gives on me all the damn time even when I'm doing nothing but standing around. My left shoulder pops out all the damn time and hurts like a shit evert time a storm moves in. I can't in good consciousness do that to my kid right? Isn't my role as a father to teach from my mistakes.

I really struggle with this. My father played from sixth grade all the way through college back in the leather and then early hard helmet era. He's healthy as an ox without any of the injuries I had. He always says if you made these guys play with the padding and helmets they had, the injuries wouldn't be the same because back then, no one was stupid enough to tackle with their heads and they were more technically sound with wrapping up legs rather than going for the big hit for their own protection. I dunno. This is a very very trying time for the game I love.


May 3rd, 2012 at 10:01 AM ^

and has had a strained MCL, but no concussions yet (note: he is a center and a DE). His friends who have played hockey have all suffered one or more concussions. They are 7th graders. My 9th grader suffered a concussion last summer wake boarding. He wasn't doing tricks, and he didn't hit the board. He just fell face first into the water at 18 knots. (We now have a water helmet.)

I agree the sport of football needs to change. Starting at the youngest ages up. This can be done. I have been through two seasons of lacrosse, and the kids are all learning what is legal contact, and what is an illegal hit. The problem is, it takes generations to effect that change. If we start with Tiny Mites today, once those Tiny Mites go up through the system and become coaches at all levels: then the change is fully in place. Until then, we still have pockets and vestiges of coaches and players who instincts are based on instruction the old "real football" way. Even with the Saints player suspensions - instead of owning up to "this is not sportsmanlike and should not be done" - even on the day of Seau's suicide - the players come back with "the League gave a warning to the team management, not the players".

In the meantime, we all cheer big hits like the ones Kovacs put on Alex Carder. Maybe we shouldn't be. Maybe we shouldn't be "hearing football" so much.

Feat of Clay

May 2nd, 2012 at 6:46 PM ^

I think attention to problems (and calls for reform) go in cycles. I think people will wring their hands for awhile, nothing much will happen, and things will continue as they have.

no joke its hoke

May 2nd, 2012 at 6:55 PM ^

I totally agree with you. It is sad about some of these former players but to act like these things dont happen in every aspect of life is short sided. These get more news because they are sports stars.Does head injuries create a lot of these problems? Maybe? But who is to say Seau doesnt do this if he is a stock clerk at walmart? 



May 3rd, 2012 at 1:44 AM ^

You are seeing a trend in large part because the media is telling you there is a trend.  Obviously the issue should be studied in depth, but especially in the case of life expectancy a large number of factors other than NFL head trauma can have an enormous skew on the statistics (race, obesity, steroids/supplements, money/fame/women/drugs/booze, etc.).  I'm guessing that the NFL sees higher rates in at least some of those categories than the general population does, and any honest assessment of the situation can't involve jumping to conclusions based on broad statistics.

If anything illustrates this perception gap, it should be the fact that so much hand-wringing and speculation is going on because one NFL player committed suicide for reasons that are still completely unknown to any of us while in another front page thread no one is talking about the damage caused by amateur pilots or small aircraft, when a single Michigan basketball commit has lost his father, mother, two siblings, and his step-mother, and been seriously injured in multiple plane crashes.  The fact that we're outraged about concussions or a bounty system that doesn't seem to have caused any particular injuries (and proudly announce that we won't let our pre-teen children play tackle football as a result) but are ambivalent about FAA procedure, the granting of pilot's licenses, or recreational flying in general, seems to suggest that our perceptions are strongly manipulated by what we're interested in already and what we're told. 


May 3rd, 2012 at 7:36 AM ^

You understand that the fact that there is some sort of FAA procedure in place, or an FAA at all, and a way to grant license is an anknowledgement of the risk and danger that flying represents. There has been, until 2010, no regulation on concussions, virtually no warnings in terms of head trauma.

And if you think this is because of "one player", your head is in the sand.


May 3rd, 2012 at 12:12 PM ^

That it doesn't mean there's danger...just that there's various factors to consider, and only one is being looked at, because it makes a nice media soundbyte. And the soundbyte is being promoted because there's high profile cases of these instances. Where there may be a lot of plane crashes, but until it's Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie going down, no one is going to care to talk about it. And it's being skewed by sensitivities, because people worry about blaming the victim in each case.  The lack of warning absolves the victim, but it also says the agency might not have known anything about it either.  If the FAA is regulating things that still result in multiple life-threatening accidents, it seems they're not doing a very good job regulating the risks of flying.

STW P. Brabbs

May 3rd, 2012 at 12:38 PM ^

Wait, are you arguing that plane crashes are not noticed in the news as much as CTE and other brain injuries?  This is utterly, completely ridiculous.  What is so problematic about the head injuries is that they may be very widespread, but research has only recently pinpointed the issue.  On the other hand, when planes go down, people notice.  Very easy to diagnose.  Yep, that plane crashed alright.  There is, I assure you, a 1:1 ratio of plane crashes that occur and those that are recorded (at least in the US and other developed nations), while the ratio of cases of brain damage from head trauma experienced to those recorded is infitesimal by comparison. 

You don't think there are a lot of cases of depression, and even suicide, among athletes that don't get talked about?  But plane crashes - no news outlet wants to talk about plane crashes.  Are we trying to put the audience to sleep here?

This may be one of the dumbest arguments I've ever seen on MGoBlog.  Seriously. 


May 3rd, 2012 at 1:55 PM ^

in regards to plane crashes?  Has ANYONE said "boy, it's bad what happened to that kid to lose his family...but we REALLY have to look at who we give pilot licenses to and what we allow them to do when someone crashes a plane, twice." Or discussed that maybe we're letting people who have no business flying take these cars with wings up in the air without sufficient oversight?  I must have missed the story on every news outlet in America.

Yes, I'm saying that tragedies are tragedies, and just that, to the media, until someone famous is the victim, THEN we need to do something about it.  Just like no one cares if 4 year high school player has depression, but if Junior Seau shoots himself, there's a major problem with football. The fact that you're posting about it proves the point. I didn't see you or anyone else posting 300 posts in 4 threads last month, last week, or even 3 days ago. Someone made a big deal out if it, and now you care. But the problem didn't just start...it just had some things that gave it attention. Enough attention that people want to change things. Which obviously hasn't been the case because of small plane crash coverage.

The fact that you can't understand it says more about you than the argument.


May 3rd, 2012 at 2:56 PM ^

So what on earth is your fucking point?

Should we dismiss it because Seau is only a data point? Does the fact that this is the third player to shoot himself in 11 months start to give this critical mass? Do you think this doesn't merit attention? Do you want a national story about Austin Hatch? What is this entire ludicrous analogy SAYING???

You want to draw a parallel between the risk of flying a one ton hunk of metal thousands of feet over the earth and the risk of accumulative high-impact collisions with other humans, and pretend the obvious risk factors between the two are similar. They aren't.

Or, I'm not sure, you want to say that "just because Seau killed himself, it doesn't mean football has a problem". But the simple fact is that it's not "just Seau". He's the third NFL player to kill himself in the last 11 months, and one of several (Turley, Webster, etc) to suffer from a distinct loss of cognitive function. Moreover, there is fucking SCIENCE, like the fellow linked directly below me.

Yes, Seau is just one case. But he's a very high-profile symbol, because virtually every football player is old enough to remember who he is - he's not a bygone relic of the 80's (Duerson) or 70's (Easterling) that many can't place.


May 3rd, 2012 at 3:49 PM ^


The fact that we're outraged about concussions or a bounty system that doesn't seem to have caused any particular injuries (and proudly announce that we won't let our pre-teen children play tackle football as a result) but are ambivalent about FAA procedure, the granting of pilot's licenses, or recreational flying in general, seems to suggest that our perceptions are strongly manipulated by what we're interested in already and what we're told.


Which was the point he was making, and one that you're not really refuting.  There's a problem in the NFL, and it calls for more investigation on ALL factors, because you're ignoring part of the problem if you follow the media wave and just look at one aspect of it. Which might solve one problem, which is good, but ignores other contributing issues that will still exist if we act on emotion and media hype, and won't really be helping people. Media hype which isn't based on the science, but what gets people excited and creates page hits and viewers. Which is what Purplestuff's point about the plane stuff was...that there's a problem there, but it doesn't get people excited. And OUTRAGE is great, but it quickly fades.  As you've illustrated by naming these other cases that were a big deal when it happened then....kinda disappeared. It shouldn't disappear when everyone settles down; it should be thoughtfully looked at, before people have knee-jerk reactions and act off of emotion rather than reason. 

You seem entirely too emotionally involved in this problem, in quantity of posts and spittle over it. Not acting in that state so you're not ignoring parts of the problem was the point.


May 2nd, 2012 at 6:55 PM ^

It's not necessarily the big hits that cause the damage.  Big shots tend to knock you out of the game,meaning you stop taking hits.   I think it is the consistend moderate shots, such as all the hits someone like Seau makes over a career that really start to add up.

That is why they are finding boxing is far more dmaging to your brain than MMA.  In boking, the gloves allow you to absorb hit after hit after hit to your head, bouncing your brain around like a ping-pong ball.  In MMA, one good shot usually floors you and you rarely continue to take a bunch of shots to the head.

Even if they took the biggest hits of out football there would be a problem.  Supposedly one study showed that linemen were actually the worst off, because they tend to get some helmet-to-helmet contact on every single play.  Very rarely are those "big hits" but they are causing damage over the long term.

Edward Khil

May 2nd, 2012 at 7:48 PM ^

MMA has a long, storied history, with a complete lack of CTE.  It's far better to have "one good shot" that "floors you."

Although, I could have sworn that most of those MMA bouts involve one guy with his legs around another, getting pummeled in the head while he's laying on the floor.  It's hard to tell if either one's brain is bouncing around like a ping pong ball, or not.


May 2nd, 2012 at 8:25 PM ^

Gary Goodridge is one example of a prominent MMA fighter with CTE. Chuck Liddell mumbles a lot more than he used to, that's not conclusive, but most of the fans see it.

Gary (It's painful to watch):


Young Chuck (Fast forward toward the last minute of the video to hear him speak):

Old Chuck:

That being said, the UFC in particular does a good job of dealing with concussions. Dana White (the UFC President for those of you who don't know) has no qualms about forcing a fighter to retire if he feels it's in his best interest (which he did with Chuck).

They also do a good job of monitoring guys. That's not to say that they're perfect, but out of all of the "violent" sports leagues, the UFC might be doing to best job of  protecting their guys. 


May 2nd, 2012 at 9:33 PM ^

My point wasn't that MMA is "safe".  No sport where your opponent is tryiing to make you lose consciousness is "safe".  My point is that the boxing glove both allows a person to dish out more head shots (because it protects the hands), and absorb more head shots, than would be possible in any bare-handed fight.  

A similar example can be made with the football helmet.  While it does a good job of pretecting from skull damage, it allows a player to absorb far more hits to the head than they would normally be able to.  Over time that adds up, and studies are now showing that even just one season of playing as a lineman can cause measurable deficits in kids.  They did find the deficits went away with rest, but what if you play for 10 years?  What happens to you over time?


May 2nd, 2012 at 9:42 PM ^

My response was to the guy who said MMA had a long and storied histroy with a complete lack of CTE.

IIRC, the UFC has cited studies that have shown one big blow to the head resulting in a KO/TKO is better than hundreds of shots to the head over the course of a 12 round fight. I also believe that you pointed this out.


May 2nd, 2012 at 9:59 PM ^

I think we agree.  I just wanted to make sure no one thought I was saying MMA was "safe".  With any violent sport, it's all a matter of degree.  As a society we like violent sports with the possibility of injury.  But what if that possibility of injury turns into a probability of injury, and of SEVERE life-debilitating injury?

I think the problem football faces is if medicine can prove the football players are not just possibly going to suffer brain damage, but PROBABLY will suffer brain damage.  If brain damage becomes the expected outcome, how can anyone feel good about letting their kids play the sport?

Then again, people still box.


May 2nd, 2012 at 7:07 PM ^

are the reason I'm continually shocked to hear parents say their child is even playing football.  I love watching the game but how much evidence do you need to stop your child from playing a game with such violence to the head.  Not even the big blows, just the little slaps to the head on every play has been studied to show they add up.


May 2nd, 2012 at 10:58 PM ^

I can explain a bit why this dad let's his son play. In suburban Chicago, youth leagues are segregated by weight class. What this means in my son's case is that he is playing with other 5th graders within about 10 pounds of him. I am a little bit less concerned because within reason, everyone is about the same size. When someone is bigger pr over a certian weight limit, they have an orange "stripe" on their helmet. They are only able to play on the line, and can't run or receive. This eliminates having an oversized RB (or LB, or safety) colliding with much smaller kids. Right now, I think his weight class is 93 pounds.

The other thing is that kids just aren't as fast or strong. This generally means that you don't see really brutal hits on the field. Partly, it is simple physics. Force equals mass times acceleration. Because their mass is less, and their acceleration is less, the force they hit with is much less. It would be interesting to see speed and weight charts, to get a better idea of where the force beomes too much.

Lastly, at this level, passing just doesn't happen very often, and very well. The game is a bit more like rugby (a lot of running, and pushing, but little passing.) A lot of brutal hits in college and the pros happen when a receiver goes up for a pass and is laid out by a fast and big safety or LB. This doesn't happen much in our youth league, because not a single QB in the league has much passing ability.

We kind of self evaluate each year. My son will probably play in 6th grade. I really doubt he will go beyond 8th grade at the highest. Up to 8th grade, he will play with kids his size. High School is where football starts to resemble the real game, and get a lot more dangerous.

My son enjoys the game, and this brings a lot to analysis. Already, he recognizes formations and patterns that I don't see, because I didn't play. Having said that, he already knows his future isn't in football. With a very strong left arm, he'll be able to pitch in HS and possibly beyond if he wants. I'm not pushing him, nor do I care whether or not he plays in HS or college. But being lefthanded with a fastball is a skillset not everyone has, and is the thing that allows him to stand out (rather than size or foot speed.)



May 2nd, 2012 at 11:45 PM ^

However, the reality is that they had one girl on the team who was a year older (and who won't be playing next year.) I suppose the thought is that if they're older, they are faster or more savvy.

Regarding weight, however, the girl who was 10 pounds lighter was still only off by 10 pounds (not the weight disparity between Holloway (164) and Campbell (322,) a difference of  158 pounds.


May 2nd, 2012 at 8:51 PM ^

They should have unis like Rugby or Australian Rules Football. Modern helmets prevent superficial damage, but encourage what are being called "sub-concussions" multiple times per day.  

Pain is a biofeedback mechanism that is there to protect you.  When you get hit in the head, it is supposed to hurt so that you try to avoid getting hit on the head.  All the current system does is encourage injuries.  

This is not something that will pop up occasionally and then "just go away" as it has in the past.  The genie is out of the bottle; lawsuits will follow.  And where there are successful lawsuits, there is always change.  It's going to be an interesting decade.


May 2nd, 2012 at 7:18 PM ^

my hockey helmet. It had a 1/4" styrofoam surrounded by 1/8" plastic. I quit my abbreviated hockey career at the AA travel midget level. Where you could see stars (getting your bell rung} if you didn't keep your head up. I was going to add to this but I forgot what I was going to say :) GO BLUE


May 2nd, 2012 at 7:19 PM ^

Nfl is the biggest bunch of hypocrites on the planet now.  The league has known forever that bounties existed, known forever that headshots caused concussions, and known forever that players take dirty plays to get those bounty payouts, to take out other players to win a game since great success results in huge paydays in the next paycheck and name recognition...........

Players are just as big of hypocrites because they played the game doing these things and now want to blame the nfl.  They blame the nfl for beginning to do what they should have done a long time ago. 

Players, Coaches all bred this atmosphere when everyone made fun of the qb in practice calling them soft since they were off limits, bragged about the huge hits............

And don't get me started on the don't ask don't tell of ped abuse in the nfl and all professional leagues! 


May 2nd, 2012 at 7:36 PM ^

and I mean nobody at all, knew the degree of brain damage caused by repeated brain trauma. That concussions were bad is not news, but the long-term result of a second concussion occurring before the brain had healed from the first was only recently understood.

Wolverine Devotee

May 2nd, 2012 at 7:20 PM ^

That's what players do when they sign up and play the game. They put their bodies on the line and use them for aggression knowing the risks. It's sad but it's what they love to do.

I blew out my left knee, had to have multiple surgeries and had my football playing career cut short before I was even a senior in high school. 

I would have continued playing even after the injuries if the risk for not being able to walk if I took a wrong hit was there.